Strange Cures

May 17, 2008

Some people will go to any lengths to rid themselves of hiccups. In the west of Ireland, a favourite remedy for hiccups is to distract the patient by getting them to visualise a green cow grazing in a blue field. One doctor in the US has found a unique way to terminate intractable hiccups.

“Hiccups can be a distressing symptom, especially when it lasts for some time. The term intractable is used for hiccups that have lasted for a month or more. Hiccups occur when the diaphragm goes into spasm, followed by a quick and noisy closing of the glottis. The diaphragm is the large muscle (shaped like and upturned sauces) that separates the chest from the abdomen; the glottis is the opening between the vocal cords that closes when we are eating to stop food entering the lungs. There is some evidence for the existence of a “hiccup centre” in the lower part of the brain. The vagus nerve, which controls the opening and closing of the glottis, is linked to it, as is the phrenic nerve which carries signals to and from the diaphragm.

Most bouts of hiccups have no obvious cause. They may be triggered by a combination of laughing, eating, drinking and talking. Occasionally, hot or irritating food is the culprit. Hiccups also occur post-operatively, probably due to irritation of the diaphragm, but they usually settle quickly. Persistent hiccups raises the possibility of a serious cause, such as brain tumour or stroke interfering directly with the hiccup centre in the brain.

No single drug treatment has been found to be effective, so a plethora of home and medical remedies have emerged over time. Probably the most popular is holding your breath while counting to 10 or breathing into a brown paper bag, both of which raise the level of carbon dioxide in the blood, which helps stop hiccups.

Stimulating the vagus nerve also helps. This is achieved by drinking water quickly or by swallowing dry bread or crushed ice. Gently pulling on the tongue or rubbing the eyeballs also introduces vagal stimulation. The pharyngeal nerve can be stimulated by drinking from the wrong side of the cup.”

A doctor in the US came up with an unusual solution when a patient of his did not respond to standard therapies. Aiming to stimulate the vagus nerve, he stuck his (gloved) finger up the patient’s rectum and gave the patient a digital rectal massage. To the doctor’s delight, the hiccups stopped and the doctor went on to publish a research paper on his cure, winning an award in the process.

I dunno what you think about this but I know I’d rather stick to my own home remedies. You’ve got to feel sorry for this guy though.

With thanks to Dr. Muiris Houston at The Irish Times for his informative article on hiccups.